Tuesday, 8 February 2022
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Last week's decision by An Bord Pleanála to approve a wind farm at Derreendonee in Curraglass, along the southern rim of Cork's beauty spot, Gougane Barra, has really taken locals in Ballingeary by surprise. Cork County Council had refused planning permission, as had the board's inspector. The council's response was an adamant and definite refusal. The council's planner said that the plans would "materially contravene the stated Objectives of the Cork County development plan" and "provide for a highly intrusive visually domineering form of development that debases the integrity and the landscape character". The council was very adamant. These towers, whose tip height would reach 178 m, would dominate the landscape in the area. It is acknowledged that alternative energy sources are need and that wind energy is going to form part of that. A great many wind farms have already been built across County Cork, including seven locally, but this is a question of the suitability of the Gougane Barra area. You cannot make another Gougane Barra but you can find other locations for a wind farm.
When you think of Gougane Barra, you think of the secluded valley, the tiny oratory on the big tranquil island and the tall cliffs around it. It is an isolated lost valley. There is a real opportunity to develop the whole area, right the way down the Lee Valley from Gougane Barra, through the Gearagh and on to Blarney Castle, for tourism. An awful lot of people rediscovered the area during the pandemic but Gougane Barra had already established its identity, nationally and internationally, well before then. We want to see tourism developed in the area. When An Bord Pleanála examined this application, it would have looked at Fáilte Ireland studies from 2007 and 2012. Even with those, it was not satisfied. It would have had to supplement them with studies from Scotland because the others were from so far back. How much consideration was given to tourism when this decision was being arrived at?
The proposed development on the southern slopes of Derreendonee in Curraglass are right on the rim of Gougane Barra. If you imagine Gougane Barra like a horseshoe with the lake in the middle, these towers would be on the far side of the cliff, on the southern side as you approach from the Wild Atlantic Way from the Bantry direction. To put the 178 m height of these towers in context, the spire in Dublin is only 120 m tall. Liberty Hall is 59 m tall. These towers would be as tall as Liberty Hall with the spire on top of it. Towers of that height situated 300 m above sea level would be seen from a very long distance away. They would have a very significant impact.
The local community is very much against it. Coiste Forbartha Béal Átha'n Ghaorthaidh is now faced with having to put together funds to possibly take on a judicial review. The council has identified Gougane Barra and only a handful of other places in the county as tourist attractions of special quality. These include the likes of Garnish Island, Blarney Castle and Gougane Barra. This development would stand out like a sore thumb. What consideration was given to the tourism value of the area?
I thank Deputy Aindrias Moynihan for raising this matter, which is very important to his community. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage's role in relation to the planning system is primarily to provide a policy and legislative framework under which the planning authorities, An Bord Pleanála and the Office of the Planning Regulator perform their statutory planning functions. The legislative framework chiefly comprises the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, and the Planning and Development Regulations 2001, as amended. The Department has also issued planning guidelines under section 28 of the 2000 Act that planning authorities and the board are obliged to have regard to in the exercise of their planning functions. However, the day-to-day operation of the planning system is a matter for the planning authorities, and for the board where planning appeals or strategic infrastructure development are involved.
In making decisions on a planning application, a planning authority or the board, as appropriate, must consider the proper planning and sustainable development of the area having regard to the provisions of the development plan, any submissions or observations received from the public and the statutory consultees, and any relevant ministerial or Government policies, including any guidelines issued by the Department. Under section 30 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage is specifically precluded from exercising power or control with regard to any particular case with which a planning authority or An Bord Pleanála is, or may be, concerned.
Consequently, it would not be appropriate for me to comment regarding any individual planning case or cases.
It is important to be aware, however, that Ireland has set an increased goal under our revised climate action plan for the generation of up to 80% of our electricity from renewable sources by the end of the decade. An electricity grid powered by renewable energy sources will contribute to Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets by substituting primarily wind and solar electricity generation for fossil fuel electricity generation, as well as displacing emissions in other sectors, for example, through the electrification of car transport and residential heating.
The renewable electricity support scheme, RESS, is Ireland's flagship policy to deliver on this up-to-80% target and to set a pathway to a net-zero economy. The first RESS auction for onshore wind and solar projects was held in 2020. The second RESS auction process has begun, with the qualification application window having closed in January. The auction is scheduled to take place in May and the final notice of award in June, which is three months ahead of our previous plans. It is anticipated that RESS 2 will deliver a major increase in renewable electricity generation by the end of 2024. The RESS programmes, including the launch of the second onshore auction and the forthcoming offshore auctions, are a major step forward in meeting the Government's ambition of reducing emissions by 51% by 2030 and delivering up to 80% renewable electricity by 2030.
A cornerstone of the RESS is the provision of pathways for increased community ownership of, participation in and benefit from renewable electricity projects. To facilitate delivery of this objective, an enabling framework for community participation has been developed. This framework includes a preference category for community projects to ensure a route to market for communities; a community benefit fund for all projects to ensure that benefits are distributed to the local communities hosting these projects; and a suite of supports, such as information toolkits, trusted intermediary advisers and financial grants, to help communities to develop their own generation projects. Furthermore, a supportive spatial planning framework for onshore renewable electricity generation development is critical to ensure delivery of the electricity targets set out in the climate action plan.
Almost all the Minister of State's response focused on the need for energy and climate action requirements. There is widespread recognition of that aspect from locals and the planning authority in this case. There are, however, places that are more suitable for different uses. It must surely be recognised that tourism is to be considered in this context as well. Gougane Barra has to be regarded as a stand-out area for tourism. Just because a national policy is in place to approve wind farms, that does not mean that every application submitted, even in unsuitable locations, must be encouraged as sites for wind farms. Gougane Barra must surely be recognised as being more suitable for tourism. The county council was adamant about this point and even An Bord Pleanála's own inspector recognised this. It is not possible to make another Gougane Barra. It is not an option available. There are, though, many other sites for wind farms.
Chuir sé an-ionadh ar fad ar mhuintir na háite agus daoine go forleathan ar fud an domhain, dáiríre, gur cheadaigh An Bord Pleanála an t-iarratas i nGuagán Barra. Bhí an chomhairle contae glan ina aghaidh agus níor bhraith sí go raibh an áit oiriúnach in aon chor. Glacaimid leis go bhfuil gá le foinsí fuinnimh éagsúla agus le gaoth ach tá áiteanna nach bhfuil oiriúnach agus teastaíonn an ceantar atá mórthimpeall ar Ghuagán Barra a fhorbairt i gcomhair turasóireachta. Tá sí níos oiriúnaí i gcomhair turasóireachta ná mar atá sé i gcomhair gaoithe. Mar sin, ghoill sé go mór ar mhuintir na háite. Ní féidir Guagán Barra eile a dhéanamh ach tá roghanna ann maidir le fuinneamh gaoithe.
Alternatives are available. We already host many wind farms in our community and it is recognised that there is a place for doing so. Gougane Barra, though, should surely be recognised for what it is. The county council recognises that, Fáilte Ireland recognises that and surely An Bord Pleanála should recognise it as well. I do not feel that appropriate consideration was given to tourism in this regard.
I thank the Deputy again for articulating the concern of local residents in Gougane Barra. I am clear, however, about my role under section 30 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, which means that I am unable to comment on specific cases. This is clearly enshrined in the legislation. I referred to the guidelines and energy targets earlier to try to set the context regarding where the Government is coming from and its direction of travel. Regarding this project, however, An Bord Pleanála has clearly set out in its report the reasons for granting the decision. Therefore, it is worth having a look at that, reviewing it and taking cognizance of the context of the decision. Unfortunately, I cannot get involved in operational issues or comment further in that regard.